Dhe name of one of the most famous exhibits in the Dresden Green Vault has recently become hard to find. “**** with the emerald level” is the new title online along with the addition “historical name” in brackets. At least that is questionable, because the historical name of the statuette of a strong, black young man, created 300 years ago in the treasury of Augustus the Strong, who presents 16 emerald crystals on a tray, has always been “Moor with the emerald stage”. The Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (SKD) have now replaced the word Mohr, which has not been used in German for decades, with four asterisks. The statuette is one of 143 works of art so far, the titles of which were either partially deleted or changed when the 1.5 million objects in the collections were searched for racist or otherwise discriminatory terms.
A fierce dispute has broken out over the procedure. There are demands to remove works of art entirely or to delete names completely, the SKD responded to a request from the FAZ. This is explicitly not done. Others wanted everything to stay as it is. As always, the loudest screams are the AfD, whose state chairman speaks of a “scandal”, senses “left cancel culture” and calls on the prime minister to reverse the renaming. How the “language police” act here is “outrageous”. But the German Museum Association also believes that museums should not simply make terms taboo. If titles have changed over the years, that should also be visible, said board member Reinhard Spieler the MDR. “I think we are historical institutions as museums, and we actually want to make it clear that other cultures and times have represented different values. That is the point of museums. “
No erasing of historical information
The general director of the Dresden collections, Marion Ackermann, on the other hand, considers “the utmost awareness of language” to be the central theme of her houses, as she recently wrote in the Sächsische Zeitung. She founded an “Anti-Discrimination AG, in which as many internal employees as possible, including external thinkers of color, are involved”. It is not just about terms that were historically used deliberately disparagingly, but also about the language used at a time in which “unreflected terms were used that are today assessed as clearly racist or discriminatory,” says Ackermann. “In order not to hurt people through the reproduction of this language, the work titles … are successively revised, largely renamed and discriminatory terms from historical titles are faded out by four asterisks.”
It has been customary for centuries in museums around the world to revise work names, especially since these are often not original titles given by the artist, but rather names given by collectors, dealers and museum employees based on the understanding of the respective time. Linguistic revisions make sense, especially with titles such as “Woman in Furs with Negroes”, “Figure of the Hottentot Couple” or “Dancing Negro Slaves”. The question is, of course, whether the case can be settled with the public deletion or revision and thus quasi undone, or whether museums do not in fact also have the task of putting things publicly in the historical context. In a response from the Saxon art minister Barbara Klepsch (CDU) to a request from the AfD parliamentary group, “in principle no historical information or titles would be erased”, “but rather moved to a non-public documentation level for research purposes in the event of changes”.
The SKD, in turn, defended itself on Wednesday against the accusation of tacitly changing the title. In this way, all historical titles have been preserved in the online collection that is accessible via the Internet. That’s true, but a kind of package insert is now placed in front of it, which raises the question of how mature the SKD consider its visitors to be. Anyone who decides to display the historical title will see descriptions that are racist or discriminatory, it warns, and that the collections distance themselves from this use of language.